The topic of parental controls is one of the hottest topics of today’s digital discussions because protecting childhood safety and innocence is a universally accepted core value for all parents. We carefully screen movie ratings, books, TV shows, and even food labels for inappropriate content and toxins but, despite what our instincts tell us surrounding internet dangers, we hand our kids smartphones and tablets and blindly send them off to play alone on the world’s largest and most dangerous “virtual playground”. We allow them access to this playground because we get pressure from our children, society, schools, other parents and even our own extended families. While this online world may seem harmless and fun at first, it happens to be the first point of contact for predators, porn, sex trafficking, sextortion, self-harm (cutting), drugs and even worse, cyber-bullying and suicide forums. Even if your child is fortunate enough to bypass these landmines, we can’t ignore the research that states teens experience more stress, anxiety and depression as a result of playing on these virtual playgrounds. (1)
Knowing a teen brain can’t resist social media temptations, parents endlessly strategize over how to safely allow access to the social media world. Pleadings and warnings to our teens fall on deaf ears because setting limits on social media is like telling them to “play on the swings but not on the merry-go-round”. Even the most well researched (seemingly perfect) parental control solutions fall short of their expectations and are quickly outgrown or outsmarted. Sadly, even diligent parents often succumb to lowering their own standards as they grow weary of dealing with their teen’s digital blunders. They acknowledge the impossibility of depending on parental control programs to accomplish what can only be done by the best parental control on the market: the parent. Unfortunately, many parents relinquish their leadership role as they assume the difficult position of social media watchdog. This demotion fuels necessary questions to be asked of our roles as parents in the lives of our children. Do we need to stop and rethink the role of “social acceptance entertainment” in the lives of our teens? How do we balance it and make it work well for our families?
Proactive Parenting is the Best Parental Control on the Market
Most parents instinctively know social media was not designed for kids, however even parents can become desensitized by content or worn down by their teen’s constant, nerve-rattling begging. Contrary to what they would like you to believe, teens are not “better off” spending large amounts of time on social media. Research shows as teenagers spend more time on social media, they experience higher levels of anxiety and depression, achieve lower GPAs, and are diagnosed with lower ”emotional intelligence”. On the list of “If I had the chance to do it over again”, many parents confess they would have given a smartphone/social media access to their teenager much later. As parents, we know how quickly the time flies as our children journey from childhood into adulthood. We need to ask ourselves if we want those precious moments to be smothered by social media seduction, a form of entertainment that comes with a big price tag.
How to Become a Proactive Parent
- Balance technology use in your home. Parents recognize social media is not for children or teenagers and, because it is difficult to manage, it should be delayed, limited, or eliminated from your child’s digital diet. The “benefits” of social media do not support the risks.
- Trust your own common sense and do not get distracted by bandwagon pleas or peer pressure by other parents. Parents know digital mistakes can last a lifetime.
- Place developmental needs ahead of social media entertainment. By delaying social media usage, parents know their children will blossom socially, physically, emotionally and academically in a timely and appropriate manner.
- Stay strong and do not be afraid of your kids. As parents, you know that loving your children often means saying “no”. Make informed decisions about social media use and recognize maturity takes time and cannot be “fast-tracked” by social media exposure.
- Know that teens do NOT need to develop a “brand” for themselves online. View social media as a great tool for business and adult communication, but not beneficial for childhood self-esteem development.
BEST Practices for Smartphone & Social Media Parental Control
- Delay access to private social media accounts until significant “adult” life skills are mastered. Remember, smartphones are designed for a 6 year-old to use, they do not require years of practice or skill to master. If you are questioning if your child is mature enough to handle phone temptations, then he or she is not ready. When in doubt, delay. Do you think your child will have a meltdown if you delay access? Take time to consider the potential meltdowns you will experience with social media access and blunders. And resist the temptation to give your teen the “hand-me-down” smartphone when you upgrade. Instead, sell the old phone and use the money to fund a family fun night!
- Start with a basic (text only) cell phone. Demonstrating maturity and gratitude for a basic phone before having a smartphone, builds responsibility in teens. In addition, a basic phone is cost effective and offers fewer distractions, making it a better choice for new teen drivers. This is another “safe” reason to delay smartphones.
- Create family social media accounts on parent-controlled screens if social media is desired. For example, a family Facebook or Instagram (“the Smith Family”) can be jointly used by parents and teens together. The purpose of connecting with friends is met, but the risk is minimized. Family accounts are the perfect training ground because they teach respect, build self-control, and establish accountability. If your teen doesn’t want to participate with a family account because it isn’t cool or she desires privacy, then she is not developmentally ready for social media yet (remember, if your child has unrestricted access to any device, he can create numerous accounts in seconds and without your consent).
Tips for Smartphone Parental Controls
Once you are convinced your teen is mature enough to resist harmful and inappropriate content, then allow a smartphone with these parental control suggestions:
- Read your teen’s texts. Most wireless providers can setup your device to receive all incoming and outgoing texts. If your teen feels it’s an invasion of privacy, tell them they are free to make private phone calls any time. Anything they say via text should be treated as “public” and has the potential to follow them for their entire life. This is called “accountability training”, and at a minimum, should help your teen practice responsibility and control before sending their next text message. Visit our Cell Phones page to find to your provider’s parental control plans. Note: iPhones are the most difficult to follow texts through your phone carrier. However, if you turn off iMessage in Settings you will force SMS messages, which are easier to follow on your device via your carrier.
- Allow only the apps you think are best for your teen and change where apps are located. Take social media apps off the phone and add back only the most essential ones you deem necessary to the family/kitchen laptop. Changing the location of the social media apps is a great way to lower distraction, be more purposeful, and balance time that can be easily wasted.
- Establish clear rules (but not a smartphone contract) for smartphone use. As the parent (not teen), YOU write and enforce the rules. Caution, this is a full-time job!
- Remove Safari from your child’s iphone. They can still text without Safari. Problems stem from children having internet access in their pocket 24/7. This will provide a nice guardrail for some unnecessary content but remember, that even with Safari removed on an iphone your child can still access internet content through many social media apps, vault or hidden apps and even Pinterest.
- Reduce the amount of time on social media. Thirty minutes a day is more than enough time to touch base with family and friends, as no child realistically needs 7-9 hours a day to check on friends. A reduction in time will mean more balance, less distractions and more time spent on other activities. If they want to be with friends, plan plenty of time together with friends in person.
- Set up accountability software. If you allow teen social media, then install an app that will allow you to follow their activity (with their knowledge). Also, you must know all of your child’s social media account passwords, and follow them on these accounts (a non-negotiable). Transparency and accountability is the key to social media success.
- Increase real social interactions. Teens often feel more left out when they are on social media, as they see what the whole world is doing. Your teen will always socialize and bond better in person than on social media.
As parents learn more about the effects of social media on teens and see that their kids are less anxious, less depressed and happier without the weight of social media on their shoulders, many parents are rethinking the role of this entertainment platform in a teen’s life. It is not necessary for our children to practice or master social media at a young age in order for them to become successful adults, but it is necessary for us to manage it well if we allow it. The best way for a parent to manage their teen’s social media is to stay actively involved with the details of this adult digital platform, and not rely on purchased software and apps to manage their child’s social media life for them. Like a coach, be firm but caring, always looking out for the best interest of your player and don’t forget to lead by example…they are watching you the most. Don’t be afraid to say “no” for now, and don’t stress any longer over finding the best parental control software. Mom and Dad, you happen to be perfect “parental control” for the job!
For more tips on managing screens in your home go to www.familiesmanagingmedia.com.